HUNTSVILLE — Marking what General Sessions Judge James L. Cotton Jr. called “an historic milestone in the fight for dignity, protection and justice for victims of domestic violence,” the Scott County Family Justice Center officially opened its doors Friday afternoon.

With a large number of local government and judicial officials on hand — along with political candidates and well-wishers — Scott County became the ninth community in Tennessee to open a family justice center, which is billed as an opportunity to better serve victims of domestic violence by making services easier to obtain and the judicial process easier to endure.

Funded through grants from the Tennessee Office for Criminal Justice Programs, the Scott County Family Justice Center is the first such program in rural Tennessee, placing Scott County in line with much larger communities like Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville in its approach to combatting domestic violence.

“In 2017, there were over 77,000 cases of domestic violence within our state,” 8th Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler said Friday. “You all have realized a need to address those significant numbers and that’s why we are here today.” 

OCJP Director Jennifer Brinkman, who journeyed to Huntsville from Nashville to be a part of Friday’s ceremony, said that Scott County was to have propelled Tennessee ahead of California as the state with the most family justice centers.

“Tennessee is one of the Top 10 states where women are murdered by men by domestic violence,” Brinkman said. “We also know men are murdered by women by domestic violence.”

According to numbers compiled by Effler, the number of domestic violence cases in Tennessee declined from 79,267 in 2016 to 77,850 in 2017.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” Effler said. “There is a downward trend.” 

Effler noted that the family justice center will help spearhead a continued decline of those numbers in Scott County.

Located at 941 Baker Highway, near the intersection of S.R. 63 and Scott High Drive, the Family Justice Center will offer no-appointment-necessary consultations to victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, human trafficking and sexual assault. A number of agencies will have representation at the center, including the local women’s shelter, the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands, the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, Scott Appalachian Industries and local law enforcement. Effler’s office has hired an assistant district attorney who will specialize in domestic violence cases and be stationed at the justice center.

Among the services offered at the justice center will be assistance in creating a safety plan, help for victims to find a safe place for them and their children, referrals to available services for adults and children, legal support and assistance with obtaining orders of protection, personal support in court appointments and emotional support.

Cotton, who played a leading role in spearheading the justice center project, called Friday’s proceedings an important step in the effort to combat domestic violence.

“It’s really difficult as a small, rural community to get funding for these projects,” Cotton said. “Our statistics and our data were not eye-popping. We are eternally grateful to the OCJP because they understand that communities like Scott County have families who are victims of domestic violence who languish without help.

“We’ve been building the road for this project and we’ve been driving down it at the same time. We’ve bumped our head. But today is an historic milestone in the fight for dignity, protection and justice for victims of domestic violence,” Cotton added.

Harness took over as the justice center project coordinator mid-stream for Tammy Foster, the former executive director of the Children’s Center, whom Cotton credited as instrumental in the project’s early success, and saw it though to its completion. After Friday’s ceremony, she echoed Cotton’s sentiments on the need for the justice center.

“This family justice center is and will be a game-changer for victims of domestic violence, as Judge Cotton said,” Harness said. “We have amazing service providers in Scott County: the Scott County Shelter Society, the children’s advocacy center, the law enforcement agencies, the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s office, the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, the Circuit Court Clerk’s office and the magistrate. However, there is a good bit of distance between their physical locations and the victims don’t always have the time, transportation needs or financial resources to travel to each of them. The family justice center has changed that.”

Off and running

It didn't take long for the new Scott County Family Justice Center to be put to the test.

Shortly after Friday's grand-opening ceremony, a domestic violence victim visited the center for help.

"She needed to speak with a domestic violence prosecutor and check on services," said Justice Center Executive Director Christy Harness. "While there she spoke to the domestic violence prosecutor, the domestic violence officer, she was connected to the Children's Center for therapy and a domestic violence advocate from the Shelter Society sat down with her in the privacy of the FJC Den to complete a personalized safety plan. While services were happening for her, her child was able to enjoy the kids' room and not have to hear what was being discussed with the mother."

By the time the woman's visit was complete, the justice center had served its purpose.

"Upon her departure we were told, 'This place made me feel comfortable and safe. Thank you for helping me,'" Harness said. "This is what it's all about. At times the system can be difficult to navigate with or without support but we want adult and child victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking to know they are not alone and we are here to help."

The pressing issue of domestic violence

According to a fact sheet compiled by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference and distributed locally by 8th Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler, there were 77,850 reported domestic violence offenses in the Volunteer State last year.

While that number was down slightly, about two percent, from the previous year, Tennessee remains among the upper echelon of states nationwide when it comes to incidences of domestic violence.

Almost one out of every two crimes against persons in Tennessee is the result of domestic violence.

The majority of domestic assault cases in Tennessee are simple assault. Last year, simple assault was reported more than 52,000 times, or 67 percent of all domestic violence cases. However, crime charts show that domestic violence includes far more than just simple assaults. There were 94 murders that were the result of domestic violence last year, 632 cases of forcible rape, more than 11,000 aggravated assaults, 177 cases of forcible sodomy, and more than 1,000 kidnappings.

Overwhelmingly, the victims of domestic violence are female (55,806 of the 77,850 cases). However, men can be victims of domestic violence as well. In fact, 29 men were murdered as the result of domestic violence last year, nearly 300 were kidnapped, eight were forcibly raped and there were nearly 20,000 assault cases — either simple or aggravated — in which the victim was a man. 

Younger people are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than older people, as the 25-34 age group compromises 29 percent of all domestic violence cases, followed by the 18-24 age group at 19.8 percent, and the 35-44 age group at 19.7 percent.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, about 10 percent of domestic violence victims between 2013 and 2015 were juveniles. The TBI also concluded that victims are six times more likely to be abused by a spouse than an ex-spouse, and that boyfriend-girlfriend relationships account for 45 percent of all domestic violence cases.

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.